CEO Blog: Home Office and DfE pulling in different directions

14 Oct 2016

In her first speech to the Conservative Party Conference as Education Secretary, Justine Greening set out plans to fund six opportunity areas in West Somerset, Norwich, Blackpool, Scarborough, Derby and Oldham. Somewhat lost in the debate triggered by the Prime Minister’s ambitions to expand grammar schools, these opportunity areas will be given prioritised access to funding to deliver a wider support package to help young people from nursery through to starting work. According to the Department for Education (DfE), they will offer ‘a practical and joined up way of supporting local partnerships between early years providers, schools, colleges, universities, businesses, charities and local authorities’- organisations which are all key to improving levels of attainment.

As such they mirror recommendations in Smarter Britain, Smarter Regions, a MillionPlus report from 2014 which highlighted the differentials in higher education participation by LEP area and region. If these opportunity areas can incorporate elements of the former London schools challenge initiative, widely acknowledged to have contributed to improved performance and pupil outcomes in the capital’s schools, so much the better.

Contrast this with the approach taken by the new Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, addressing the same Conservative audience just hours earlier. Unlike Greening, the Home Secretary’s speech offered little hope of a nuanced approach.

If press reports this week that the Home Secretary attempted to persuade the Prime Minister that international students ought to be removed from immigration figures are accurate, it appears that, like Greening, Rudd has been handed the tricky job of delivering an agenda determined in part by Number 10 rather than her own Department.

In spite of the fact that surveys confirm that the public do not see international students as part of the immigration ‘problem’, borne out by fresh polls that show overwhelming public support for international students, Rudd set out a course of action that will set the Home Office playing ‘divide and rule’ through the creation of a two tier visa system for international students. This will be based on dubious distinctions between UK universities and notwithstanding the fact that the Secretary of State for Education thinks that they are all fit to play their part in raising social mobility among hard to reach communities in England.

To suggest, as the Home Secretary did, that there are ‘low quality’ universities offering ‘low quality’ courses to international students is not only wrong in principle, but also totally lacks an evidence base. It should be given short shrift by universities and the DfE.

All UK universities are quality assured through an independent quality assurance system so effective it is being replicated by other countries. This is one reason why UK universities remain highly regarded by international students in spite of an increasingly challenging and costly visa regime implemented by the Home Office. UK universities are rated number one for satisfaction by international students, delivering a wide range of courses and opportunities for home and international students.

Although the Home Office has said it will consult on these proposals, no-one should be under any illusions. The consultation will be about how such a system can be delivered rather than on the principle. In a nutshell, Amber Rudd appears to want universities to say how criteria should be applied, in the process accepting the erroneous premise that some of them offer lower quality courses than others. This is a nonsense which no self-respecting business, never mind a university, should accept.

The Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Education are now in charge of departments facing in opposite directions.

The government has yet to clarify how it will determine which universities represent ‘low quality’ but it is easy to see how the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), with its Gold, Silver and Bronze approach, would dovetail nicely into the proposal. But should this be the plan, it will completely undermine confidence in the TEF, which relies on metrics and ratings decided by Ministers which are at best distant proxies for teaching excellence.

Those who think that international students are again being used to reduce migration numbers are right. As Home Secretary, Theresa May introduced credibility tests which were then used to challenge the academic judgments of universities as to which students were qualified to be admitted to their courses. Under her watch, institutional visa refusal rates were halved, notwithstanding that the latter are outside of the control of universities and are therefore not reliable evidence as to whether an institution is complying with its Tier 4 licence responsibilities.

It is time for universities and students to stand together and tell the Home Office that enough is enough: there is no legitimate basis to distinguish between the quality of UK universities. Moreover, international students add value to universities in a huge variety of ways and their study in the UK underpins strategic relationships which benefit the UK in the short and long-term. There is simply no case for the Home Office to value some universities and their students more than others as a back door means of reducing overall migration numbers at the same time as all universities are being regarded as lynchpins for the UK government’s social mobility strategy in England.